10 Questions for a Broadway Pro: A few “notes” from Lin-Manuel Miranda.

 

To call Lin-Manuel Miranda just a writer is like saying Da Vinci was just a painter.

Like the ancient Italian, Mr. Miranda does a whole lot of things, and, unlike most, he does a whole lot of them unbelievably well.  He’s a composer, lyricist, actor, musician, poet, and one of the most beloved guys on the Broadway scene.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he invented a flying machine too.

And to say he gives back to the community is an understatement.  In fact, here’s a perfect example of how much he cares about the movers and shakers and the writers to be . . . when I ask people to answer my “10 Questions,” the most common answer I get as a reply (when I get a reply) is . . . “How long do my answers have to be?”  Sounds like a 12-year-old getting an essay assignment, right?

You know what Lin said?

“My answers are turning out CRAZY long. Is that okay?”

‘Nuff said.  Without further ado, here are Tony Award Winner Lin-Manuel Miranda’s awesome answers to our 10 Questions.

1. What is your title?

I write music and lyrics.

2. What show/shows are you currently working on?

I’m working on Bring It On: The Musical (get the Bring It On Recording here) with another composing team, Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, which opens in November at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles.

I’m also working on a concept album about the life of Alexander Hamilton.

3. In one sentence, describe your job.

I write the parts of the show that end up on the cast album.

4. What skills are necessary for a person in your position?

Musicianship. You don’t need to be a piano or guitar virtuoso, but if you’re getting into this because you have music in your head that you are burning to express, you must have a means by which to express it clearly. It’s not enough to be able to hum a tune: You can’t hum a chord. (I mean, some Tibetan monks can, but I can’t.)

Reading and writing music is not necessary, but it certainly helps. Music is like any other language: you can make yourself understood if you’re not fluent, but why not endeavor to make yourself understood as clearly as possible?

You have to ENJOY collaborating, and being part of a team. Musical Theater is many different art forms smashing together: music, storytelling, dance. You may have to change a lyric because your choreographer is planning an amazing routine, and they can’t hold that long legato note you wrote. Your book writer may come up with an amazing scene that renders a particular lyric redundant. If you’ve chosen great collaborators, you talk, you debate, and the best idea in the room wins. Other artists give you perspective and make you a better writer, if you’re running with the right crew. Finding the right crew is the hardest part.

5. What kind of training did you go through to get to your position?

Musically, I took piano lessons at a very young age. I had a solid grounding of music theory in high school, at least enough to be able to fake play something by reading the guitar chords.

But the most formative training I had was a childhood spent with all different kinds of music. My parents and friends had eclectic tastes, and when I began seriously writing music of my own (as opposed to song parodies to amuse my friends), a lot of different influences began to seep out.

I went to Hunter College High School. We had an entirely student-run extracurricular theater program, and an amazing faculty adviser named Gina Dooley. I began acting in 8th grade and never stopped, though I soon began writing one-act plays and musicals, and directing as well. I cannot overstate how much I learned during these years. When you are directing your fellow high school students, and you have no authority to pay, fire or punish them, no motivating force at all other than to make them believe in your vision of how the show should be, you learn to project confidence very quickly.

I majored in theater at Wesleyan University. As a theater major, you need to log a certain number of hours doing BTP, ITP or ATP (Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Technical Practice). BTP is applying makeup, painting a set, knitting a costume. ITP is a design position: you can stage manage or create costumes: I did most of mine by doing sound design or writing incidental music for other people’s plays. ATP is acting or directing. So you learn to do a little of everything before you graduate. I learned to sew, I applied makeup, I built and struck sets, I learned to work within a tight budget. I’ll never light a show, but I can tell a Source-4 from a Fresnel. The take away here is enormous: Understand what everyone is bringing to the table, in every discipline. Be around people who want to do what you want to do. You don’t need to go to college for either of those lessons, though I did.

6. What was your first job in theater?

I had a summer job as an unpaid intern at Repertorio Español, an amazing Off-Broadway theater in New York. They have a repertory company that does productions in both English and Spanish. They do several shows simultaneously, so they’re striking sets and putting others up every day. I mostly cleaned floors and struck sets, but I got to see amazing theater for free.

7. Why do you think theater is important?

I can only tell you why it’s important to me: I don’t ever feel more alive than when I’m in a theater full of strangers, and the magic that’s happening on stage makes us all scream, or laugh, or cry together. And those moments are rare because they’re hard to get right, getting all those different elements to coalesce. But when they do? In Phantom, during Masquerade, when it keeps building, and building, and then the Phantom shows up, and the horns BLARE his theme? Or the end of Act One of Sunday In The Park With George, when the painting begins to take shape? I can’t describe the feeling of when everything comes together just right, other than to tell you it’s overwhelming, and powerful, and it has NEVER happened to me staring at my computer at home. It is a uniquely communal experience.

8. What is your profession’s greatest challenge today?

Most immediately: rising costs, rising prices. If we don’t find ways around it, then the only theater that gets produced is custom-built for the people who can afford it. And that club gets smaller every year.

In a macro-sense: funding and supplementing arts education if our schools cannot afford it. I was very lucky to go to a specialized public school where music was a class, right next to science and math and history. No, BEYOND lucky: I won the LOTTERY by getting into that school. It saved my life.

9. If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?

Comfy seats for everyone. Not just Broadway. My magic wand wave will give every regional, community theater and every school auditorium and gymnasium on Earth comfy seats!

10. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do what you do?

Learn marketable skills with which you can make a living while you pursue this passion. Listen to anything and everything critically. That doesn’t mean criticize what you like and what you don’t like. It means, if a piece of music moves you, start to break it down. What is the part that gives you chills? Is it the way the horns start playing in unison right at the climax of the song? What is the rhythm section doing: is it playing with those horns, or providing a counterpoint? Let’s say you’re at a show, and you just don’t like what you’re seeing. If you want to do this for a living, DON’T TUNE OUT, and DON’T DON’T DON’T CHECK YOUR PHONE. Look closer: what about this show isn’t working? Did that rhyme pull you out of the story? Is this actor working too hard, and making you see the work instead of the story? Is it the sound system? There is no theater experience from which you cannot learn. In doing this, you begin to learn your own tastes, which will inform the kind of writer you will be. I wish you luck.

 

 

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The Tony Awards beat me to this blog.

The theme of this year’s Tony Awards opening number was the current overwhelming number of songs on Broadway stages from the popular musical canon.

Well, dangit, that’s what I was going to say!

But it’s more than just this year’s crop.  While leaving American Idiot a few weeks ago, I walked through Times Square and looked at all the marquees.  Connections to popular music are all over the Great White Way in one way or another.

Let’s look at all the book musicals (in alpha order) currently playing on Broadway and connect the popular dots:

A Little Night Music

Stephen Sondheim is not considered a “popular” composer, but ALNM features his only major pop hit “Send In The Clowns,” of the over 800 songs he has written.  It won a Grammy for ‘Song of the Year’ in 1976.

American Idiot

Composed by punk-rock super-group, Green Day, the album of the same title also won a Grammy for ‘Best Rock Album.’

Billy Elliot

Composed by rock superstar (and sometimes Rush Limbaugh supporter), Elton John, who has more Grammys than a retirement home.

Chicago

What do I have to say about this composing team?  How about this:  two words repeated.  “New York, New York.”  That popular enough for you?

Come Fly Away

Speaking of NY, NY, Come Fly Away is all pop tunes sung by pop legend, Frankie S.

Everyday Rapture

This bio musical uses pop tunes to tell some of its story.

Fela!

Fela Kuti’s tunes may not have been featured on morning radio in this country, but in his homeland, his pioneering sounds were all the popular rage.

Hair

The astrological tune, “The Age of Aquarius,” held the #1 spot on the charts for 6 weeks and is listed as the 57th Greatest Song of All Time according to Billboard.

In The Heights

I got nothing on this one, except for the obvious influence of pop music of the time on the score.  So far, that’s 8 out of 9 with a direct connection to the pop world.

Jersey Boys

A bio-musical about one of the most popular guy-groups ever, who sold more than 175 million records.

La Cage aux Folles

Not only did “I Am What I Am” rank on the charts, but Herman had a hit with “Hello Dolly” in 1964 when the Louis Armstrong recording knocked The Beatles out of the #1 spot!

Mamma Mia!

The gold-record standard of the jukebox musical still has ’em dancing in the aisles and grossed almost $800 million last week, almost 9 years after its opening.

Mary Poppins

The Sherman Bros have should get an award for having so many awards. Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, and more.  Their supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songs have been sung by the masses for years.

Memphis

David Bryan, the composer of Memphis is the keyboard player for a little known band called Bon Jovi.

Million Dollar Quartet

Some of the greatest classic rock tunes, and classic rock characters, are featured in this jukey musical.

Next to Normal

Outside of his musical theater work, Composer Tom Kitt is the founder of The Tom Kitt band, and his work on American Idiot led him to be hired by Green Day to provide arrangements for their latest album, 21st Century Breakdown.

Promises, Promises

Promises Composer Burt Bacharach has written 70 Top 40 hits in his lifetime, including “I Say A Little Prayer For You” and “A House Is Not A Home” which were both integrated into this revival.

Rock of Ages

Mamma Mia but with 80s tunes.

South Pacific

How many covers of songs can a composer/lyricist have?  R&H’s tunes were all over the place in their day, and are still used in pop culture today.

The Addams Family

Like In the Heights, there’s no real strong connection to the pop world here.  That makes 18 out of 20 with direct connections to the pop music world.

The Lion King

Another one by Sir Elton.

The Phantom of The Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber is like a modern day R&H when it comes to his theater songs becoming standards.  Streisand, Manilow, and Mathis are just a few of the folks that have covered and scored hits with “Memory” alone.

West Side Story

Leonard Bernstein was successful in the popular idiom in another way . . . the classic way.  He grabbed a couple of handfuls of Grammys in his day, including one for Lifetime Achievement.  He wrote for the movies, for shows, for choruses, and more.  His stuff was everywhere.

Wicked

What Andrew Lloyd Webber is to the UK is what Stephen Schwartz is to America.  He is our most popular successful composer, with Grammys and Academy Awards and more, oh my.  “Day by Day” was a Top 40 hit, and he has even written songs for Five For Fighting.

There you have it.  24 musicals on Broadway and 22 of them with direct connections to the world of popular music.  Some looser than others, I’ll admit. And some are chicken-egg questions (Did their pop success come from the theater work or vice-versa?).

But my point is not that you need to be a successful pop artist to be a successful Broadway composer.  In many of the cases above, the Broadway success came first.

What I am saying is that the overwhelming lack of degrees of separation between successful Broadway composers and the world of pop music suggest that there may be a characteristic that binds the two.

And that characteristic is melody.

So if you’re a composer looking to get a show up on Broadway, you might want to make sure your songs have some similar characteristics to what’s on the radio.  I can’t tell you how many demos I listen to (or stop listening to) where the composers seem to be after some sort of intelligentsia award, instead of just writing a song that people might enjoy hearing in their car, or while cleaning their room, or while they are finishing a blog at 2:08 AM (Lady Gag
a is on in the background on my Sirius radio).

I’m not saying that theater songs have to be Britney-like trite or super-simplistic (God knows Green Day isn’t trite, and Elton’s stuff is some of the richest musical and lyrical material you’ll ever listen to).

But they’ve all got melody and hooks and songs that people like to sing along to.

And that will put you at the top of charts and the Tony Awards.

10 Questions for a Broadway Pro. Volume 5: Brian Lynch, Production Manager

With this volume of 10 Qs for a Broadway Pro, we’re going behind the curtain to find out what one of the top Production Managers in the biz has to say about his gig.

If you’ve ever sat at a show and been amazed at how a piece of scenery fit onstage (or backstage), or how a fireworks-like lighting effect didn’t burn up the ensemble, then you’ve witnessed the wonderful work of a Production Manager like Brian Lynch.

Brian Lynch has worked on big shows, small shows, and shows that are juuuuuuuust right, coordinating the technical needs and desires of the Designers and Director, with the needs and desires of the Producers . . . oh, and then he has to coordinate all of that within the confines of the Local 1 Stagehand agreement.

As you’ll see, Brian is a man of few words.  Why?  Well, he’s one of the busiest guys I know, and great Production Managers give you the answers you need quick and fast.  It may not be the answer you want, but the best ones just tell you the truth and tell it yesterday . . . so it doesn’t cost you money tomorrow.

Let’s see how Brian answers our 10 Questions.

1. What is your title?

Production Manager/Technical Supervisor

2. What show/shows are you currently working on?

West Side Story, In the Heights, recently closed Ragtime (unfortunately, great show), and all White Christmas companies

3. In one sentence, describe your job.

Ensure that each production is done with efficiency and within a well-structured technical budget.

4. What skills are necessary for a person in your position?

A working knowledge of all technical aspects of mounting a show in a theatrical environment, being able to work creatively with producers, directors, designers, shops, and stagehands of all types and temperaments, and having a thorough knowledge of all the resources that are available…oh, and lots of patience.

5. What kind of training did you go through to get to your position?

Five years of electronics on a nuclear submarine.  B.A. in English from Loyola University, 1970.  Thirty-five years working on Broadway with Manny Azenberg, Jim Freydberg, Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller, Charlotte Wilcox, etc. etc.

6. What was your first job in theater?

Working on automation systems for the Civic Light Opera Company in Los Angeles…1971.

7. Why do you think theater is important?

It is an art form and all art is important…not to mention the fact that it is how I make my living

8. What is your profession’s greatest challenge today?

Staying relevant and affordable to today’s young people.

9. If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?

The death of the 25-million-dollar musical!

10. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do what you do?

Enjoy the challenge.

10 Questions for a Broadway Pro. Volume 1: A Broadway Mad Man.

Today on The Producer’s Perspective we’re introducing a brand new feature, which is a spin-off on my Advice From An Expert articles.

In “10 Questions for a Broadway Pro,” I ask . . . yep . . . a Broadway Industry Professional 10 Questions!

We’ll talk to all sorts of people involved in the modern theater and get their perspective on their job, their role in the biz and what they’d like to see change.  We’re gonna hear from Casting Directors, Marketing Directors, Press Agents, and more (let me know if there is a position you’d like to hear from).

The inspiration for this feature came from my first gig on a Broadway show.  I was the Production Assistant on the Barry and Fran Weissler revival of My Fair Lady, starring Richard Chamberlain and a 23-year-old Melissa Errico.  My duties included everything from getting Richard his fresh-off-the-bone turkey sandwiches to typing up the rehearsal schedule on a Mac Classic.

And it was one of the greatest times of my life.

The best part about the gig was that I was exposed to a whole bunch of people and positions that I never knew existed before.  The job gave me a chance to see who was pulling the curtain strings of Broadway . . . and made me realize that I was even more excited about being behind-the-scenes rather than in them (I was on the actor-track).

I used to ask everyone involved in the show questions about what they did. Thanks to their answers, I learned so much about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do.

So, I thought I’d give you a virtual experience of what I went through back then, and introduce you to not only the biggest players on Broadway whose names aren’t on the marquees, but also help us all understand what exactly they do on a day-to-day basis.

First up is one of Broadway’s own Mad Men, Drew Hodges, the founder and CEO of SpotCo, one of the two Broadway heavyweight ad agencies.  (Drew also happens to be #21 on BroadwaySpace.com’s 50 Most Powerful People.)

Having sat in many an ad meeting with Drew, I can tell you that he’s one of a very rare hybrid that combines incredible business acumen with unbridled creativity.

Without further ado, here are 10 Questions with Drew!

1.    What is your title?

Founder, SpotCo Advertising

2.    What show/shows are you currently working on?

Next Fall, Million Dollar Quartet, La Cage, Memphis, A Behanding in Spokane, Chicago, The Pee Wee Herman Show, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair, A View From the Bridge, Billy Elliot, Fences, Time Stands Still, Red, In The Heights,  The 39 Steps, Avenue Q, West Side Story, Come Fly Away, Lips Together Teeth Apart, Present Laughter, The Miracle Worker, Blue Man Group, Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Love Never Dies.  In no particular order.

3.    In one sentence, describe your job.

We create identities and sell tickets for live theatrical events.

4.    What skills are necessary for a person in your position?

Creativity, marketing, problem solving, humility, humor, and fast thinking.

5.    What kind of training did you go through to get to your position?

I owned my own design studio doing advertising and design for entertainment – film, cable, and the recording industry – for 12 years. Before that, I got a BFA in Graphic Design from the School of Visual Arts.

6.    What was your first job in theater?

I did the poster for The Destiny of Me, the sequel to The Normal Heart for Tom Viola and Roger McFarland.  It’s a portrait of my right hand.

7.    Why do you think theater is important?

It creates joy and outrage, both often when we need it most.

8.    What is your profession’s greatest challenge today?

Conservatism, and too many cooks.

9.    If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?

That every challenge be met with humor and poise, rather than blame.  The team is always better when unified and caring.

10.    What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do what you do?

If you wanted to work in advertising for theater, there are several paths to take.  If you are a graphic designer, video editor, web designer, etc., we just look for a great portfolio that has vibrancy, a sense of humor as a person, and the ability to move fast.  A love of theater is not essential, and often times, I like that people bring a more diverse palette to our Broadway materials.  If you wanted to be an account person, a writer, etc., a passion for theater is a great help.  A sense of marketing, or marketing courses as a background are nice.  We have several people from the BMI workshop, and the producing program at Columbia.  We also have people who have worked at other more traditional ad agencies, and that knowledge can be a huge help, when combined with the joy (or the heartbreak) of theater.

Because Drew is the kind of guy that always goes a little further in everything he does, he also answered a bonus question.  When asked what kind of advice he would give to someone that wanted to be a Producer, he answered as follows:

Surround yourself with the best people, and be willing to understand that every friend you have will tell you your project is perfect.  You need to listen to real people, and if your advance is falling, people don’t like it as much as you think.  The opposite is also true- if your advance is climbing, no matter how slowly, people are genuinely loving your show and you should keep going.

Want to hear more expert advice from Drew but don’t have a show that he can advertise yet?  Listen to some of his American Theatre Wing panels here.

We lost a dreamer.

On the last day of September, we lost a real Broadway gentleman.

Mr. Sonny Everett, one of the Producers of Avenue Q, Drowsy Chaperone, In the Heights and a whole bunch more, passed away, way too prematurely.

As you can read here, Sonny always dreamed of being a Broadway Producer, and he never gave up on it.  It took him awhile to get his name on a marquee, but he did it . . . and then he did it again, and again, demonstrating that it’s never too late to go after what you love.

I first met Sonny when he cold called me a couple of years ago.  “I’ve heard you like to do things a little differently,” he said.  “I’d like to meet you.”

And we met.  And in two minutes I realized that I was talking to one of the classiest guys around.

We’ll miss you, Sonny.

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